[11 June 2009]
PopMatters Features Editor
Obviously, esteemed author Kate Walbert’s new novel, A Short History of Women, addresses major, thought-provoking questions of suffrage and its seeming manifestations in the Townsend lineage; but being a competent writer, she’s also wise to the fact that such a monumental movement cannot be so easily categorized and dissected in such a brief, 224-page fictional account. That said, the question then becomes: what new development in the underlying subject of “the woman question” does Walbert reveal through her lyrical tapestry of these five generations of mothers and daughters?
Honestly, though immediately drawn into the book from the dramatic 1914 opening where Dorothy Townsend is slowly withering away on her deathbed as she starves herself for woman suffrage before the eyes of her very own teenage daughter, this reviewer initially found little in the way of innovation. Not to downplay the significance of the suffrage movement, but of course women struggled, especially at the turn of the century, and of course women struggle today against countless modern oppressions, though obviously they shouldn’t; but how does A Short History of Women add new dimension to this ongoing fight against antiquated prejudices?
But Walbert isn’t after a solution or a comprehensive history of woman suffrage, and this becomes increasingly clear as she moves ahead in time and reaches the new millennium. Instead of retelling a story about the trials and tribulations of women over the last century, a story rehashed elsewhere in numerous books, Walbert reveals the exact opposite; she reveals the subtle, poignant, and complex emotions that women have been forced to negotiate as a result of this liberating moment.
As Warner revealed in an interview with Simon & Schuster, ” ... regardless of the era all the women shared a kind of collective yearning, a desire to start anew, to break for freedom, to ram their heads against whatever seemed to stand in the way of their emancipation: from the most obvious barrier of not having the vote to the more oblique and insidious barrier of motherhood in the age of anxiety.”
In short, the Townsend women are not merely radicals backing just causes, but fully formed human beings who not only understand their responsibility to the suffrage movement, but also recognize how their actions, however well-intentioned, affect their families and their children as a result. The political and social punch that was delivered so long ago (by women such as Dorothy Townsend) has left a bruise on the consciousness of the women to come, a wound that requires time to heal, one that will never be completely forgotten.
Hence, the real insight of A Short History of Women is the eloquent juggling of this division between mother and suffragette, between daughter and idealism inheritance, between decedents and the family reputation of activism, each individual torn between an almost ancient legacy and the future they envision for their children. Add to that the human compulsion for the simple comforts of home and the casual happiness of family despite the weight of history, and then you’ve got the real substance of Walbert’s novel. As Wilbert has stated about Dorothy, “She remains an enigma to me because her decision to starve herself was one of both supreme selfishness and supreme selflessness, and I’m intrigued by the impossibility of reconciling the two…”
In short, each female character is well aware of their yearning to “do something”, as Dorothy Townsend (Barrett) verbally suggests on many occasions and repeatedly demonstrates through her anti-war protests, snapping illegal photographs of the planes carting back corpses of fallen solders in the 1970s, an activity that lands this 60-year-old in jail a number of times. Yet Dorothy is also struggling emotionally with the death of her son (to cancer), not to mention her duty as a mother to her surviving daughter Caroline, who is constantly bailing her out.
Perhaps Dorothy Townsend (Barrett) is the figure that best qualifies this turning point in history. As mentioned, she hungers to make an important, lasting impact on the world through activism, not only for the sake of her own sanity, but to hopefully encourage a better world for future women; and yet she doesn’t necessarily wish to transfer that same ambition, which has caused her so much personal, internal grief, to her daughter. What’s a woman to do? Remain silent and raise children who won’t be bothered by unnecessary disruptions in the happiness they’ve worked so hard to maintain? Or act out against injustice wherever they see it and drag their family into the whirlpool of their determination?
Maybe both. As fully formed characters, however, these women don’t simply fight for women’s rights, but rather bargain their activism against their example as mothers. They must attempt to attain an unattainable balance between their own personal satisfaction (selfishness) and the satisfaction of their social, family environment (selflessness). This is the line the Townsend women must walk; this is the balance they must constantly negotiate (between family and emancipation); this is the heavy dilemma outlined in A Short History of Women. As that political punch that began ages ago is transferred from mother to daughter to granddaughter, women must participate in the movement while also softening the blow to future generations in the hopes that their daughters and their daughters’ daughters will live in a world where these battles will no longer need to be fought, or at least not to such a degree.
Walbert’s novel succeeds in capturing that hope. What began as a hunger strike resulting in the death of a mother eventually becomes a simple passage in a Facebook profile posted by a Townsend descendant in 2007, stating simply: “My great-great-grandmother starved herself for suffrage. Color me Revolutionary.” Which is the whole point of A Short History of Women. Essentially, great women have sacrificed for the movement, all while negotiating their personal feelings as well, in order to pave the way for a future where their actions have become echoes, integrated into a society that has achieved (or is achieving) equality.
Though the novel succeeds on an emotional and social level, the lyrical style of her prose can become jarring at times, leading readers down tangential avenues that may be linguistically impressive and colored with vivid imagery, but don’t help appropriately develop characters or core ideas. So too, the narrative jumps between eras and even shifts from third-person-limited point to views to first person to even omniscient sometimes, which causes numerous disruptions that make it necessary to constantly refer back to the family tree detailed in the front matter. Not to mention the confusion caused by the fact that three of the main characters are named Dorothy, with hardly any creative work to immediately differentiate them from chapter to chapter.
Minor artistic faults aside, Walbert’s A Short History of Women masterfully crosses continents and timelines, weaving together a genealogical tapestry that chronicles five generations of women, all of whom feel the ripples of the previous generation’s political and personal struggles, their own opinions and emotions incorporated into one realistic, believable, and enduring legacy of woman suffrage.